Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Themes

  • Good vs. Evil

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    From the minute you wake up in the morning, life is a moral struggle: hit the snooze button, or get up and go for that run you promised yourself you'd take? Put your dishes in the dishwasher, or leave them in the sink for your mom to clean up? Confess that you watched The X-Factor instead of finishing your homework, or lie that your cat had to go to the emergency vet?

    Now, imagine that you're sailing up the Congo in a steamboat, and those daily moral struggles take on a whole new gravity. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow's desire to be good and do good becomes increasingly futile as he's plunged into a world where no absolute goodness exists and the best he can do is choose between a selection of nightmares. Eventually, we see that the characters become unable to distinguish between good and evil—or between the River Thames and the Congo, or between black and white—until finally we're left wondering if there's really any difference at all. Spooky.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Does Conrad seem to have clear definitions of what constitutes good and evil? What actions does he portray as good or evil?
    2. Heart of Darkness is full of light and dark imagery. On what different levels do you see this imagery working?
    3. What abstract concepts might light represent? How about darkness? Do light and dark follow the convention of light representing goodness and dark representing evil?
    4. What is the "heart of darkness" of the novel's title? Think in terms of abstract concepts as well as of places and characters. Could the "heart" of darkness be a place of light rather than of dark?

    Chew on This

    For Conrad, good and evil aren't as different as they might seem.

    Conrad often uses light, not as a symbol for goodness or enlightenment, but as a foil to a darkness that it eventually collapses into.

  • Man and the Natural World

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    Move over, Mother Nature: there's a new wilderness in town. In Heart of Darkness, the natural world isn't a place of comfort or pleasure or even mild neutrality: it's dark, frightening, and it will basically eat your face off if you so much as look at it cross-eyed. But is civilization really that much better? Sure, you might get to sleep in a bed—but human nature is the same whether it's shouting "brava" after an operatic aria or chanting along with war drums.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What does civilization seem to represent at the beginning of the novel? What does nature represent? Does this distinction hold true as the novel progresses?
    2. How does the concept of civilization become problematic as the novel progresses? How are the Company's attempts to 'civilize' the Africans hypocritical?
    3. If nature is madness-inducing, what does this say about human nature, especially the native Africans?
    4. How do different aspects of nature, especially the river and the jungle, become characters in their own right? What is nature's attitude towards man?

    Chew on This

    In Heart of Darkness, natural forces have a will of their own: they're hostile to the white "pilgrims," but accepting toward the black "savages."

    Conrad suggests that there's no real difference between the natural world and human nature.

  • Race

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    Conrad doesn't exactly want to buy the world a Coke, but he does seem to have some unconventional ideas about race—at least, unconventional for the late nineteenth century. In Heart of Darkness, he seems to be suggesting that there really isn't so much difference between black and white—except that this vision of racial harmony becomes more complicated when you consider that he seems to be suggesting that black people are just less evolved versions of white people. Maybe. We're like 50% sure on that one. As with most issues in Heart of Darkness, the differences between black and white are so confusing as to be almost meaningless. And, in fact, maybe that's just Conrad's point.

    Questions About Race

    1. How are the differences between white and black people depicted in Heart of Darkness? What kinds of activities does each group participate in?
    2. What does imagery of light and dark seem to have to do with race in Heart of Darkness? What does this say morally about each group of people?
    3. What kinds of white European expectations does Marlow bring into his journey up the Congo? How are they dispelled? Look specifically at the examples of the accountant, manager, brickmaker, and Kurtz. What is Marlow's attitude towards the native Africans?
    4. How is Kurtz's attitude towards the black Africans ambiguous? How might he be viewed as the ultimate symbol of imperialism and black subjugation? Alternatively, how might he be read as a symbol of liberation and freedom?

    Chew on This

    Despite white Europe’s good intentions towards the Africans and their desire to "civilize" the black man, imperialism proves to be a brutal and callous victimization of the native Africans for the sole purpose of maximizing profits.

    Despite Kurtz’s brutality, he treats the Africans more civilly and more as equals than the majority of the other white European characters (like the accountant, the manager, and even Marlow). This is why Marlow sees him as the lesser of two evils.

  • Identity

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    By the end of his journey into the Congo, Marlow is so mixed up that he might as well be singing, "I Am the Walrus." Although he starts off with a pretty clear sense of who he is (white, successful, explorer), the jungle and the wilderness pretty quickly get him all mixed up. Is black white? Is civilization actually wild? Is Kurtz really that different from Marlow? And who is the manager, anyway? And are we really all just hollow inside? Heart of Darkness isn't about to say.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How is Africa a place of emptiness from the white European perspective?
    2. How are even places of civilization—cities and trading stations—empty in terms of European amenities and values?
    3. What characters lack essential human characteristics? How do they show their fundamental emptiness? And are these characteristics actually essentially human?
    4. How are the white pilgrims deprived of their senses and reason as they descend deeper and deeper into the interior?
    5. What characteristics or understanding do both Marlow and Kurtz lack? How does this affect their interpretation of the events toward the end? It may be helpful to look at their comments about language here.

    Chew on This

    Men may go into the interior whole and unscathed, but the hostile wilderness quickly drains them of their humanity.

    The wilderness only exposes the essential emptiness in every man's heart.

  • Power

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    Everyone wants to be powerful. (Even you. Even Shmoop.) And the people in Heart of Darkness are willing to do some pretty nasty things to get their way: blow up steamships, behead Africans, and wish untimely and unpleasant illness on their coworkers. (Okay, truth, who hasn't done that one?) The Europeans all see nature, and the Africans, as something to be dominated—but in the end, we can't help feeling that the real power is still locked up tight in the African Interior. In fact, we suspect that Kurtz's warrior mistress just might be the most powerful one of all.

    Questions About Power

    1. How do white men overpower the black native Africans? Where do the Africans seem most powerless? Most powerful?
    2. Which characters are concerned with gaining more power and rank within the Company? What does their obsession for power cost them?
    3. How is Kurtz's power more absolute than any other characters'? Conversely, how is his control over himself especially weak? How does this tie into Marlow's comments about his "lack of restraint"?

    Chew on This

    Kurtz's power comes from being able to understand and control the native Africans. With access to a large stash of ivory, he wins leverage within the Company.

    Kurtz's lack of self-restraint eventually undermines any position of power he manages to hold.

  • Women and Femininity

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    Sorry, ladies: there's basically nothing for you here. Seriously. Conrad is all about the gentlemen. For Marlow—and presumably for Conrad, too, although we could argue about that—women exist in a totally separate world. Part of the reason the world in Heart of Darkness is so grim for the dudes is that they have to protect women's idealism. Of course, you could also suggest that the Intended stands in for all of Western civilization, which would mean that Marlow's lie about Kurtz lets us all go on pretending that foreign workers aren't suffering to produce our smartphones and $5 t-shirts, men and women alike.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What is Marlow's opinion of women's position in society? Does Conrad seem to agree with this? Which characters demonstrate Marlow's claim and which dispute it?
    2. What characteristics does Marlow associate with women?
    3. Compare and contrast the wild warrior woman to the Intended. Both are potential love interests for Kurtz. If the Intended is an embodiment of purity and idealism, what does the warrior woman represent? How do these characteristics reflect on Kurtz?
    4. Although men make up the majority of the authority figures in the book, powerful women are not utterly absent. Name at least two powerful women and state how they exercise their power.

    Chew on This

    Despite Marlow's disparaging comments about women, a number of women display or exercise a substantial amount of power in Heart of Darkness.

    All the women within Heart of Darkness reflect the values of their society and are viewed as nothing more than trophies for men. Even the women who seem at first to have power are in fact powerless upon closer inspection.

  • Exploration

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    The Company's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. And … to brutalize and abuse the native Africans and lands in order to make huge profits off of ivory. Hm, it doesn't sound so noble when you put it like that, does it? Marlow and others like him might start off as starry-eyed idealists wanting to fill in the map, but, once that map gets filled in, their goals change: now it's not so much about finding new places as about making that last drop of profit from those new places that they can. Heart of Darkness puts a grim spin on the mythology of exploration—one that J. J. Abrams is probably not going to direct. (Although, that sounds truly awesome.)

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What captures Marlow's curiosity about Africa? About Kurtz? What is similar about these two obsessions?
    2. Why does Marlow insist at first that he's not interested in Kurtz? Is he telling the truth at the time? Does he only get interested later?
    3. How does Marlow's curiosity compromise his integrity and bring about dire consequences? Or is his curiosity actually harmless?
    4. How does Marlow explore Kurtz? Is the human mind a legitimate path for exploration? How does this make his sense of right and wrong more flexible?

    Chew on This

    Marlow's journey up the Congo River parallels his exploration of the human psyche: as he plunges deeper into the African interior, he goes deeper into the nature of good and evil.

    In Heart of Darkness, Conrad suggests that exploration is a negative force.

  • Madness

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    There's method in this madness: Kurtz has gone from noble conqueror to deranged slaver because his power and greed have been totally unchecked. Ergo, if you want to stay sane, don't swoop into an African village and start passing yourself off as a god. Point taken. But that's where things start to get hazy. Is madness is just another name for imperialism—the idea that white men can swoop into Africa and claim it for themselves? Or is madness what happens when civilization tries to conquer the wilderness?

    Questions About Madness

    1. How does Conrad define madness? How is Kurtz the ultimate embodiment of madness?
    2. What symptoms accompany the onset of madness in Heart of Darkness? What human faculties begin to break down? Does Marlow become a little crazy himself?
    3. Is madness caused by the trip up the Congo River and into the interior? Or is it something that is born into man, regardless of his environment? In other words, is madness caused by inherent nature or environment and experience?
    4. Can the harlequin be seen as a bridge between madness and sanity? How do his words make sense yet seem like folly to Marlow? How does Marlow relate to the harlequin? What does this say about Marlow's state of sanity?

    Chew on This

    Isolation and life in the wilderness cause Kurtz's madness; in other words, there is something inherently madness-inducing about the African interior.

    One of Conrad's main messages is that madness is not caused specifically by living in the wilderness, but that the seeds of madness—ambition, obsession, and greed—are always present.

  • Language and Communication

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    For someone who wrote a lot of big words, Conrad seems to have some serious doubts about the power of language. In Heart of Darkness, words are always trying and failing to live up to their big, impressive goal: ensuring that two people can understand each other. For Kurtz, language is a way to justify white man's superiority over the Africans. For Marlow, language represents a way out of madness by establishing a connection with other humans. For the Africans—well, who knows? To Marlow, their words aren't even language. We might say the same about you, Mr. Conrad.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is significant about the manager's and the brickmaker's characteristic blabbering? What does it say about their characters?
    2. How does Marlow receive information about Kurtz? Are these sources reliable? What expectations does Marlow form about Kurtz based on this hearsay?
    3. What is Kurtz's relationship to language? How does his troubled psyche manifest itself in his words? What is Marlow's opinion of all this and how does it affect his own relationship to language? Does he see it as a cure for madness?
    4. What is Marlow's style of narration? Does the fact that he is telling the story compromise our belief in its validity? Is he a reliable narrator? What might be his goal in relating the story to his fellow passengers?

    Chew on This

    Linguistic expression—through either speech or text—represents one way out of madness, but they also represent a way into madness. Kurtz's handle on language helps make him go crazy.

    In Heart of Darkness, problems with words give us a clue to character defects.

  • Fear

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    The white pilgrims go into the interior in constant fear of their surroundings. Their trepidation is so strong that they develop a paranoia of the wilderness – its eerie silences and sudden blinding fogs, its impenetrable darkness and shadowy savages. Being so far removed from any vestige of civilization as they know it only adds to their sense of helplessness. Their fear makes them do foolish things on impulse. Fear also contributes to their eventual madness. It pervades the entire novel and seems to seep into the environment itself so that everything is not only terror-inducing, but morally disturbing as well.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What exactly do the white men fear about the black native Africans? How is this enhanced by the jungle environment?
    2. What do the men fear about Kurtz? What makes them go after him anyway? Why does Kurtz pose such a big threat to them?
    3. How does Conrad enhance our fear and awe of Kurtz? What physical and mental characteristics does Kurtz display that render this man particularly disturbing to our sense of normality and morality?
    4. What does Kurtz fear? What exactly is "The horror! The horror!" that he dies fighting?

    Chew on This

    Conrad stokes readers’ fear of the interior by narrating the death of Fresleven, imposing Marlow’s discomfort, and rendering nature a hostile force to the white pilgrims.

    Kurtz strikes readers as particularly frightening because of his eerie combination of human and ghostly features and his strangely logical, yet brutal, flow of thought.

  • Fate and Free Will

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    Marlow’s journey toward the interior and toward Kurtz seems inevitable, as if Marlow is drawn nearer and nearer to the heart of darkness by his own morbid curiosity and by his childhood drive to explore. Indeed, the two women knitting in Brussels represent the Fates of ancient Greek mythology. With their appearance, Marlow begins to feel as if his journey is ill-starred – yet he forges on anyway. The interplay between fate and free will informs the action of the plot, calling into question whether Marlow could have avoided his descent into madness, his corruption, and his subsequent revelations about human nature.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How are the two old knitting women embodiments of Fate? Why does Marlow envision them at the end?
    2. Are all the accidents that keep delaying Marlow’s journey into the interior truly incidental?
    3. How is Kurtz a product of fate? To what extent do his personal choices affect his descent into madness? Could his demise have been prevented?
    4. Is Marlow destined to meet Kurtz? How do his personal choices towards the end of the novel affect Kurtz, himself, and the Intended?

    Chew on This

    Marlow cannot help but meet Kurtz: he is destined to go into the interior, experience it much as Kurtz did, and eventually meet the man himself. If we accept Kurtz as Marlow’s foil, this means that Kurtz was fated to go mad in the interior and couldn't stop it by any conscious decision.

    Marlow’s meeting and renunciation of Kurtz is a result of personal choice; in other words, he could have glorified Kurtz as the others did, but he made the choice not to.

  • Time

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    Conrad plays with readers’ sense of time to emphasize certain points in the plot of Heart of Darkness. Marlow tells his story aboard the Nellie so readers go with him (as well as his listeners) into the past. Simultaneously, we readers in real time watch the reactions of Marlow’s listeners as they respond to Marlow’s story. Marlow’s journey into the interior is also described as a journey back in time, to a prehistoric age during which the untouched wilderness proves primal and merciless. The river itself comes to represent the linear flow of time, on which Marlow travels forwards and backwards.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does Conrad maintain the aura of suspense in the first two chapters of the novel? What techniques does he use to prolong time?
    2. How do the numerous delays in Marlow’s journey affect the pacing of the story?
    3. How does Conrad make the last part of the journey (to the Inner Station) seem timeless? Why does Marlow feel like he is going backwards in time?
    4. How do the two separate time sequences (that of Marlow’s journey and that of Marlow’s telling the story to his fellow passengers) complement each other? In other words, when Marlow interrupts his narrative, how does that interruption emphasize, parallel, or render ironic the action in the narrative?

    Chew on This

    Conrad uses well-placed delays in Marlow’s journey, long descriptive passages, and incompetent members of the Company to prolong time and induce a suspenseful atmosphere.

    The river is a symbol of linear time that Marlow and his crew traverse; as they go further and further up the river, they feel as if they are receding further back in time.